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How Entrepreneurs Became Celebrities

Entrepreneurs have long been seen as job creators and innovators, but only recently did they become popular enough to grace the covers of glossy magazines.
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Somehow entrepreneurs have gone from media darlings to celebrity status in a relatively short time period.

But today's founders can rival Jennifer Lawrence or David Beckham in popular culture. So how is it that Tumblr's David Karp is on the short list for glitzy fashion shows and Mark Zuckerberg's wedding created a media frenzy? Credit the money-and-Hollywood crazy culture.

Here, a tracing of the rise of entrepreneurs as celebrities in this not-at-all exhaustive walk down memory lane:

50 Cent cashes in on Vitaminwater
2004--Celebs put a new spin on endorsements by taking equity stakes in companies rather than paychecks. In 2004, rapper 50 Cent teamed up with Glacéau Vitaminwater, which offered him a minority interest in the company to sign on as spokesman. In 2007, Coca Cola purchased Glacéau for $4.1 billion. That purchase price earned 50 Cent about $200 million before taxes--an amount reportedly worth 10 times more than what the rapper had made selling records up to that point.


Apple commercials lift tech's profile
2006--Although Apple in 2006 was hardly a startup, the company (and its unflappable founder Steve Jobs) would go on to inspire legions of future founders. The company's "Get a Mac" advertising campaign, which ran from 2006 to 2009, simply sealed the deal. Apple was cool. Its snarky ad campaign, starring actor Justin Long, became a breakout success--clearing the way for Apple to amass record sales of its products and eventually become the most valuable U.S. company. In 2010, Adweek declared the efforts as the best advertising campaign of the first decade of the new century. 


YouTube sells for $1.65 billion
2006--One of the biggest tech-company acquisitions to date occurred when Google (a former startup darling) purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion. The huge payday, after only about a year’s work, grabbed the public’s attention. After all, the only thing better than big money is big money fast. Since then, billion-dollar acquisitions have become a lot more common. In recent years, Tumblr (via Yahoo) and Instagram (via Facebook) are new additions. Even more recently, photo-sharing app SnapChat rebuffed a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook. Google reportedly was willing to pay $4 billion. 


Kim Kardashian co-founds ShoeDazzle
2009--Citing the success of business/celeb mashups, Kim Kardashian signed on to "co-found" ShoeDazzle, an ecommerce site based in Los Angeles. In a separate deal, Rapper Nas and actor Nick Cannon signed on as co-founders at the now-defunct fashion subscription service 12Society in 2012.


AT&T, Dell and AmEx select treps as pitchmen
2009--In 2009, Blake Mycoskie of TOMS, the Venice, Calif.-based one-for-one company, starred in a 30-second TV ad for AT&T. The appearance proved provident, as corporate giants the likes of American Express and Dell would soon offer up their own campaigns featuring entrepreneurial pitchmen. While another 60-second AT&T spot landed Mycoskie squarely before legions of American Idol viewers, others would go on to land book deals and TV shows. As a nod to the strategy's popularity, companies continue to promote entrepreneurial pitchmen and women. Among others, you can find social entrepreneur Salman Khan, founder of the non-profit educational website Khan Academy in Bank of America ads.


The 'Zuckerberg effect' goes to college
2010--Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg didn't just make hoodies into acceptable business attire. His story also inspired the 2010 Hollywood film, The Social Network. Today, students across the U.S. regularly claim "Zuckerberg status" if they drop out of school to start up.


America looks to entrepreneurs for help
2010--Barack Obama entered the White House amid a major economic crisis as political leaders turned to entrepreneurs and small-business owners to help put the country back to work. So, it's probably not surprising that in his first State of the Union address in 2010, Obama mentioned the terms "small business" and "entrepreneur" 14 times. His two predecessors mentioned the terms just an average of twice per each of their 14 combined addresses. 


Celebrity investors pull out their wallets
2011--Hollywood heartthrob Ashton Kutcher co-founded A-Grade Investments in 2011 with billionaire Ron Burkle and Madonna's manager, Guy Oseary. Among other companies, Kutcher is invested in Airbnb, Skype, Foursquare and Uber. Since then, celebrities from Leonardo DiCaprio to Ryan Seacrest to Justin Bieber have joined the fray with their own star-studded investments.


SXSW takes over
2011--Entrepreneurship conferences attract legions. The ultimate entrepreneurship conference, SXSW Interactive, has been held in Austin, Texas since 1994, but in 2011 mass media began to take notice. Time Warner launched its CNN Grill at SXSW for the first time and AOL dished out breakfast burritos to hungry attendees. Other brands including Chevrolet and Samsung staked their claim too. The event's popularity would only grow. In 2013, SXSW Interactive attracted more than 30,000 registrants.


Celebs look to start up
2012--Actors the likes of Jessica Alba and Andy Samberg have taken up the actual startup reins. Reportedly, Alba put her own money into baby and child-products subscription site, The Honest Company. Other notable celebrity entrepreneurs include Jay-Z with record label Roc-A-Fella and other ventures, Gwyneth Paltrow with Goop and Bethenny Frankel of SkinnyGirl products.


Veronica Mars cracks the crowdfunding code
2013--Veronica Mars crushed all crowdfunding records when it handily surpassed its $2 million goal to raise more than $5.7 million on Kickstarter. More than 86,000 backers agreed to finance a feature length film based on the hit TV series. Since, Spike Lee and a number of other notable film directors and producers have also turned to crowdfunding to finance projects.


Higher education takes up the entrepreneur flag
2013--Universities and colleges are hopping on the entrepreneur bandwagon. Today, roughly two thirds, or about 2,000, U.S. colleges and universities now offer a course in entrepreneurship, according to the Kauffman Foundation.


Steve Jobs inspires the movies
2013--After Steve Jobs' death in 2011, the Apple co-founder inspired not just one but two biopics his life and tenure at the company. The first film starring Ashton Kutcher was released in 2013, while the second film from writer/director Aaron Sorkin is still reportedly in the works.


Glossies feature treps
2013--Glamour magazine has increasingly given up more real estate to high-flying and glitzy founders since first highlighting entrepreneurs in its annual Women of the Year awards in 2004. The magazine produces regular reports on female entrepreneurs to watch and women in tech, among others. This year, Glamour added its first Glamstarter Awards to highlight startups.


The $1 billion club expands
2013--Ever the enticement for future entrepreneurs is the prospect for landing big money. Pinterest, for one, could boast a valuation of $1.5 billion three years after launching. Today, the pin-board photo-sharing site's founders are joined by 25 to 40 other highly valued private companies. In the club, there's Airbnb, SurveyMonkey and Spotify and Box, among others. With these billion-dollar valuations, it's hard to imagine entrepreneurs won't enjoy even more time in the limelight.


Last updated: Dec 12, 2013

DIANA RANSOM | Features Editor

Diana Ransom is features editor at Inc. She has been covering the never-dull world of small business and entrepreneurship for years at a variety of publications including The Wall Street Journal, SmartMoney.com, the New York Daily News, Fast Company magazine and Entrepreneur. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.




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